It was clear in reading through the comments section of the first Guide to Comedy Podcasts that I had inadvertently ignored a lot of tenderly beloved examples of the format. In an effort to rectify the oversight, I’m now taking a weekly look at which of these are worth your valuable time and which ones are ruining it for everybody. This week’s featured podcast is The Bugle.
The conceit of The Bugle is laid out right in the tagline: “An audio newspaper for a visual world.” Basically it’s the podcast equivalent of The Daily Show and The Onion, but British, and with a little Monty Python-style absurdity thrown in for good measure. The Bugle is a weekly satirical dispatch about world events which proudly trumpets (or bugles, I guess) the increasing irrelevancy of the format it’s mocking. After all, in a world gone nutty for 24-7 news, who exactly would need an actual straightforward radio program chronicling the week that was?
The show is hosted by two comedians, John Oliver from The Daily Show and Andy Zaltzman, with whom American audiences will be less familiar. John always sounds boisterous and celebratory, giving his sarcastic quips a whiff of cognitive dissonance. (How could a delivery so chipper carry content so biting?) Andy is often more reserved, but no less funny. He’s a British comedian of the Daniel Kitson mold, with the same exact haircut as Larry from the Three Stooges. Although John is an American now, and therefore his performance each week is quite literally phoned in, there is still plenty of highly refined banter between the two hosts, who have been doing comedy together in one form or another for the better part of a decade. Despite that spontaneity, though, the show is surprisingly tight for a podcast.
Like an actual newspaper, The Bugle is broken up into sections which remain in the same order each week. Although the very first thing you hear is a rooster crowing, what would a podcast called The Bugle be without an actual bugle? A liar, probably. That’s why a horn is an integral part of the jaunty theme music, which is quaintly upbeat like a venerable university’s fight song. The show starts off with “the section that goes straight in the bin”, since in real life we tend to throw away part of a newspaper right away. This is where the random factoids come out. Next comes the week’s top story, followed by the Feature section, listener emails, and finally Sport. Also, sometimes at the very end of the podcast there’s a Forecast for next week, a prognostication about something like whether the show will still be around next week.
Like all good satire, The Bugle’s material has a basis in fact, which then leads to wild flights of fancy. Each bit usually starts out with actual information that spirals into silliness to better illustrate the point. For instance, the Sport section might start out with the stats of a football player (not American football, so you won’t have heard of him) who had an outstanding game, and then Andy would go on to give a totally ridiculous fabricated biography of this player. The hosts really hit the satirical sweet spot with moments like their juxtaposing the record-shattering opening day sales of the latest Call of Duty video game with the public’s seeming indifference to the actual wars going on right now. While this may seem like common ground to cover, Andy gives it a great twist at the end by noting that the Persians had once complained about how the brand new game, chess, glorified war to its players.
Although the show is mostly all about current events and occasional forays into history, we do get some personal information about its hosts. Andy will often talk about his family, offering, for example, a charming account about bribing his daughter to cooperate by promising her a silly dance when she relents. John of course goes on to refuse to continue the rest of the podcast unless he hears the sound of Andy doing a silly dance from halfway around the world. John will also tell stories about his other job as correspondent for The Daily Show. These will either involve celebrity encounters or trouble he had with protesters on assignment. One such story I recognized from seeing John do stand-up in NYC – the story of a very pungently high Snoop Dogg stopping in the hallway of The Daily Show to point at a dog and comment, “Bow Wow”, like the narrator of a book for preschool children. Much is also made of the increasing Americanization of John Oliver, his saying math instead of maths, for instance, or using expressions like ‘talking smack’. This banter in between bits helps to define the show as something more than just fake news.
The Bugle is sponsored by The Times of London, which would probably account, in part, for its high quality. The Bugle is tighter, funnier, and better produced than a lot of its competition. While there is a charmingly slapdash quality about many podcasts that works to great effect, the professionalism of The Bugle is impressive. So much preparation and thought goes into each episode, you’d think there was a small staff of writers, or at least more than two of them. It’s amazing how many jokes they manage to cram in. It smacks of effort in the best possible way. See for example, a random episode’s Straight In the Bin section about self-help books, which offers this impressive list of fake titles: How to Shout in Public and Find Love, You and Your Eyebrows: Unlocking the Power of the Frown, The Stranger Whisperer: How to Make Friends on Crowded Public Transport By Gently Whispering into People’s Ear About Fun Things You Might One Day Do Together, The Expectant Expectorant: Spitting for a Long Life. Another example of the seemingly offhand greatness of the show is the way Andy introduces John each week. He always throws in some hilariously unnecessary over-the-top praise during the announcement, see for example: “The Mahatma Gandhi of making gags, the Jesus Christ of joke cracking, the Ludwig Van Beethoven of lampooning those buffoons, the Barbra Streisand of biting satire, it’s John ‘The Pitchfork of Accountability’ Oliver.”
Then again maybe all that praise isn’t merely hyperbolic. John Oliver’s status has been rising lately as both a stand-up and in films, where he has bigger acting roles on the way as well as a development deal for a script with The Daily Show writer and executive producer, Rory Albanese. One wonders how much longer Oliver will have the time or the inclination to continue doing The Bugle podcasts as his profile rises and his schedule gets more complicated. Probably best to listen up now so you can enjoy him, and this exemplary podcast, while you still have the chance.